Justin Trudeau knows how to make a good impression. Just ask the scores of Weibo and WeChat followers he engaged with during his recent visit to China. His skillful use of these social media platforms (roughly the Chinese equivalents of Twitter and Facebook Messenger) allowed ordinary citizens to accompany him as he toured the Great Wall with his wife and daughter; coached a high school basketball game with retired NBA star Yao Ming; performed tai chi on stage to celebrate the launch of a Manulife venture; and posed for an infinite amount of selfies with giddy locals – all the while flashing the patented Trudeau grin. Oh, and along the way he got some work done too – including the signing of $1.2 billion in trade deals – and then attended the annual meeting of the world’s most powerful economies, the G20, in Hangzhou.

Foreign diplomacy doesn’t always run so smoothly. Without a keen understanding of the traditions of a country, and a solid grasp of socially acceptable modes of conduct, there’s always the possibility of making an embarrassing – and even politically damaging – misstep.

But diplomacy isn’t just for world leaders. Workplaces have their own cultures too. Companies are constructed out of the values, beliefs and traditions of the employers and employees who’ve created and sustained them. Knowing that you have the basic skills to perform a job well isn’t enough. “Fitting in” is often just as important. And that means more than understanding the dress code. If you don’t also understand the values of the work culture you’ve entered – or if you eventually discover that they don’t align with your own value system – you could easily end up as an outcast.

Some work culture paradigms

Companies have defining characteristics, just like countries. And because companies in the same sector of the economy will often share similar values, it’s not too hard to form them into groups, or paradigms. Here are a few common examples of work culture paradigms that North Americans are particularly familiar with:

  • Survival of the fittest: This is the kind of work culture where one is perpetually at war with everyone else to out-sell, out-create or out-talk each other. Deadlines need to be met, quotas filled, deals closed. The competitive environment leaves little time or incentive to cultivate friendships. Brokerage firms, call centres, and certain e-commerce ventures exemplify this paradigm.

  • Cross t’s/Dot i’s: This culture values acute attention to detail and a high threshold for sometimes intensely tedious tasks. An affinity for numbers and analysis is a prerequisite for this type of culture. Think: commercial banks and insurance companies. Also fast-paced but less cut-throat than the previous paradigm, with greater attempts by management to foster team spirit among employees.

  • In it for the long haul: Team spirit and camaraderie are often emphasized in this type of culture. Jobs in oil and gas, manufacturing, or forestry typically exemplify this paradigm. Management assumes a paternalistic attitude, and employees are offered opportunities to further their studies (especially if it relates to the industry) and improve their potential. This culture tends to foster intense company loyalty.

Getting more specific

Justin Trudeau’s success in China didn’t happen without months of planning, preparation and coordination. Whatever he said in interviews or in seemingly informal conversations was clearly calculated to portray himself – and by extension Canada – in the most positive light. It was therefore imperative that he had a strong knowledge of his audience.

Whether you’re attempting to get a job at a specific company, getting ready for an interview, or heading in for the first day of work, the best way to ensure that you’ll make a good impression is to be prepared to demonstrate that you understand the culture you’re trying to join. And that means research. Like countries, individual companies have histories, traditions, and sometimes even mythological figures (just think of the cult-like veneration the late Steve Jobs continues to inspire). You need to know these things. And that’s what the internet is for. So start searching!

The importance of adaptability

Finally, if you believe that altering any aspect of your behaviour or personality would be like destroying a priceless work of art, you’re in trouble. Thriving in new environments means being able to adapt to them. If you’re shy, but thinking of applying for a company that’s known to have a very sociable culture, you should probably learn to get comfortable with small talk (this great Workopolis article will help). But you also need to be prepared to observe, learn and be patient with yourself while attempting to assimilate a company’s often tacit codes of conduct. Some people even recommend trying something radical like: ask questions.

Still, sometimes adaptability just doesn’t cut it. It’s possible that, even after acing the interview and landing the job, you might find yourself feeling utterly miserable. When no amount of attempted assimilation helps to endear you to your boss or fellow employees, you might just have to pack your bags and find another job.

Like Socrates said: Know yourself. Once you truly understand who you are, what you’re capable of, and what you’re really looking for, you’ll be able to find the work culture that’s truly right for you. As the old saying goes: What’s the point of going to China if you totally hate pandas?